In today’s competitive world, only the innovative survive. But who can provide a company with the best conditions for this? A conversation between thyssenkrupp Steel Europe Executive Director Dr. Heribert R. Fischer (l.) and trend analyst Matthias Horx.
Mr. Horx, how much innovative power is there in the German economy?
Matthias Horx: That varies from sector to sector. Generally speaking, Germany’s tradition of gradual innovation is the envy of other countries. Its famous "Mittelstand", with its small and mid-sized businesses, has constantly been able to improve goods and processes to the point where they simply can’t be copied.
Mr. Fischer, how innovative is thyssenkrupp Steel Europe?
Heribert R. Fischer: When I look at the materials we’ve developed lately, I’d say it’s highly innovative. Our high-strength steels with their nanoparticles and sandwich products with polymer or carbon as the middle layer offer completely new solutions for lightweight construction. And with new simulation techniques, we can precisely predict the future behavior of our materials for the customer. This close collaboration with our customers is of tremendous importance for innovation today. Another example is the thyssenkrupp InCar® plus initiative. We will be working together with thyssenkrupp Components Technology to offer more than 40 new solutions for the automobile industry.
Matthias Horx: A process change is beginning to emerge in the industry. In the past you used to send a group of technicians down to the basement and tell them to tinker about for a couple of years. This is something company leadership can’t force – it just has to grow organically. The result is collaborative innovation. Knowledge is no longer just fostered within the company, but also in advance, by exchanging ideas with customers.
What will the steel business look like in ten years’ time?
Matthias Horx: Let’s look even further into the future. By then a steel mill – or better still, a ‘ferro basis’ plant, because lots of molecules will be flying around inside it – will consist of a white hall with a variable, modular spatial configuration. The workers inside will be mainly technicians and inspectors. That’s already getting close to those utopias of the 1960s, with their completely unmanned factories.
Heribert R. Fischer: As far as we’re concerned, there’ll never be unmanned factories. But there will certainly be even fewer manual operations being performed in our plants. However, as always what we’ll need are well educated employees who’ll supervise and optimize the processes and ensure quality.
Perhaps, too, one brilliant idea might transform the steel industry?
Matthias Horx: Only very rarely in the history of innovation is there a ‘big bang.’ We should also bid farewell to Gyro Gearloose and his hopes of inventing a machine that turns metal into gold. At the end of the day, innovation is the interweaving of many fine strands. Plus, a company’s constant transparency not just toward society, but also toward other sectors with which, at first sight, it has nothing in common.
Heribert R. Fischer: Who isn’t looking for the next Gyro Gearloose? But the fact is, our innovations are developed and driven by teams. That’s why we involve all our employees, and implement the best ideas in the field. At the same time we need to quicken the pace and cut development times down – to three years before a product is marketable, down from five – so we can move more closely towards our customers’ development cycles.
How many people thinking outside the box does a company need?
Matthias Horx: It’s not enough just having people think outside the box. For every 100 employees, a company needs three or four ‘loyal mavericks.’ Know-it-alls, who get on everyone’s nerves, but who actually have lots of experience and identify closely with the company.
Heribert R. Fischer (chuckling): Whether we need mavericks right now or not, I really can’t say. But innovation needs employees with high levels of knowledge and experience, and who at the same time approach matters with open and curious minds, by asking simple questions that sometimes place things in an entirely new light. This kind of climate for innovation not only sharpens our competitive edge. It’s also a key factor in higher levels of customer orientation and attractiveness as an employer.